Wednesday 6 August 2014


Stephen McNeff
Stephen McNeff - Prometheus Drown'd; Nova Music Opera Ensemble, Artistic Director/conductor George Vass, Director Richard Williams
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Jill Barlow on Jul 30 2014
Star rating: 4.5

World premiere of Stephen McNeff's Shelley-inspired chamber opera

Stephen McNeff's 'PROMETHEUS DROWN'D' was premiered in Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel ,Hampstead,29/30/31 July ,as part of a Double Bill with Cecilia McDowall’s 'Airborne; (for my review of 'Airborne' set in WW1 see Planet Hugill Aug 4th) )

 'PROMETHEUS DROWN'D' was inspired by and incorporates music from 'A Voice of One Delight' a monologue composed in 2010 for mezzo soprano with the accompaniment of flute, harp and viola commissioned by the Presteigne Festival. To quote the programme notes:- 'Prometheus Drown'd elaborates on 'A Voice of One Delight' both dramatically and musically and explores greater depths. The new work tells the story of the poet Shelley's untimely drowning from the perspective of his companion Edward Trelawny, (a spoken role)while Shelley's inamorata, Jane Williams, sings her responses as settings from verses inspired by her in the last few months of the poet's life when they and their respective families were living in Tuscany. An expanded instrumental palette allows a greater musical range while still retaining a chamber approach. A further dramatic dimension is achieved by adding two further characters-a younger version of Trelawny and Shelley himself'. (both spoken roles).

This was a superb production in every way, combining dramatic clarity and impetus with ecstatic top notes and arched phrasing from the ever vibrant mezzo soprano Clare McCaldin as Shelley's inamorata – Jane Williams. Apparently the initial idea for 'Prometheus Drown'd', came from Louis Edouard Fournier's highly romanticised painting of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's funeral pyre on the beach at Viareggio. The spoken narration on stage throughout by the old Trelawny, (Christopher Good) served to give continuity and depth of meaning to the complexities of the saga and enigma of Shelley's sad ending as it unfolded complete with tentatively suggested 'flashbacks', well managed. Strident bells, and poignant strumming of the harp, from the instrumental ensemble sensitively directed by George Vass, pulled at the heart strings at key moments in the action on stage.

As it emerged in dramatic flashbacks, that an old fisherman had in fact confessed to actually running down Shelley's ship when he saw it in danger, hoping to reap financial reward, high pitched notes from the flute, and intrepid strings, and bells, added impact and texture to the music. The powerful soprano voice of Clare McCaldin, echoed at one point by the flute, aligned with the strong spoken roles of the young Shelley (Max Keeble)and young Trelawny (Grant Sterry) managed to steer the plot through rough waters, emotionally. We even learn that at one point Shelley had asked his friends to get him some prussic acid to keep in reserve as a 'golden key to perpetual rest' in case life ever became too much for him in the very intensity of his aspirations as a young poet. (this substance apparently his friends declined to seek out for him). The conclusion is that Shelley's death was connected with the fate of his boat rather than anything more insidious or complex.

But as Jane Williams expresses as the philosophy of the young Shelley's set of avant garde companions:'What is here, what is death, what are we ?'

In Nova Music Opera's double bill, there is a theme of a fearless, almost reckless approach to death by both the young Shelley, in 'Prometheus Drown'd' and the young WW1 pilot Johnny in 'Airborne', but each in very different contexts.

Composer - Stephen McNeff, Artistic Director /Conductor George Vass, Director Richard Williams
Libretto – Richard Williams
Nova Music Opera Ensemble
Clare McCaldin (mezzo soprano) - Jane Williams(Shelley’s inamorata) Christopher Good – Trelawny (spoken role)
Grant Sterry - Young Trelawny(spoken role)
Max Keeble – Shelley(spoken role)
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Jill Barlow
Copyright Jill Barlow, 5 August 2014

See Jill Barlow's review of the companion work Nova Music Opera Ensemble's double bill, Cecilia McDowall's Airborne.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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